Tom Brady turned 45 Wednesday morning, and while most middle-aged men clutched sore backs, iced achy knees or put off another workout in favor of riding a golf cart in moderate heat, sport’s most celebrated probably-sugar-free birthday cake added another candle at the start of yet another Brady season. As always, the dots that led here connect, in unusual ways, across sports, in defiance of physics, hence 45 reasons how 45 happened and why 45 matters, especially now.
1. The exercise in fun-with-numbers that takes place every Aug. 3 gets better every year. For example, CBS Sports made a list of the NFL’s top players over 30 in honor of Brady’s birthday. And, while some might quibble with Brady’s placement (first) relative to Aaron Donald’s (third), the gap in age between Brady’s accomplishments and those of his “older” contemporaries grows more striking every fall.
2. Sticking with that list for a moment: When Brady turned 30—in 2007!—only Aaron Rodgers had even made the NFL. He remained entrenched on the Packers’ bench that year.
3. Consider Richard Seymour, the premier defensive lineman and longtime Brady teammate in New England. Seymour was drafted the year after Brady, retired a full decade ago and will go into the Hall of Fame this week. He’s three years younger than Brady and already cleared the five-year wait for induction.
4. Think about how much the league itself has changed since Brady arrived. His career is older than the Houston Texans, and he was drafted into a league with six divisions. He predates red challenge flags and the NFL Network.
5. Brady is a walking Ready to Feel Old fun fact. He has played against Jon Runyan Jr., whose dad was his former Michigan teammate. He has played with Antoine Winfield Jr., whose dad picked him off in 2001. Bucs rookie Logan Hall was born six days after Brady was drafted.
6. Brady has an outrageous 22,938 passing yards since his 40th birthday. He led the league in passing yards during seasons in his 20s, 30s and 40s. Touchdowns, too.
7. No one knows better than baseball legend and 27-year MLB vet Nolan Ryan why Brady is still playing, why he might actually retire soon and what really matters in the elite athlete calculus of perpetually returning for another season. “I didn’t set out to pitch a certain amount of time,” Ryan said on the eve of Super Bowl LIII in early 2019. “I enjoyed what I did. It was a challenge to compete against people half my age. But: You have to have that mindset.”
8. Ryan recorded his final strikeout on Sept. 17, 1993. He pitched seven innings that day, allowed one (unearned) run and fired a heater at 98 mph to register career K number 5,714. This mark will never be broken. Sound familiar?
9. Ryan started once more, five days later. But in the first inning of that game, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He was 46. He never pitched again. Ryan wouldn’t equate didn’t pitch again with didn’t think it was possible to return. What mattered was whether he wanted to, not whether he could. Does that also sound familiar?
10. When his pitching coach, Tom House, began working with Brady, Ryan saw the parallels far earlier than anyone else beyond his coach and his coach’s new turn-back-the-clock pupil. “[House] was always trying to slow the aging process,” Ryan said in 2019. “His passion certainly influences you.”
11. As the flamethrower watched Brady from a distance, Ryan marveled at more than accuracy and arm strength and avocado ice cream. The accomplishments stood out, from touchdowns to passing yards to records broken. And the rings, of course the rings—Brady needed two hands for those eventually.
12. So, yes, Brady “retired” for 40 days this offseason, his break rising to match other famous 40-day stretches, like Noah and that ark. Yes, he wanted to spend more time at home, with his family, present rather than obsessed with football. That’s true.
13. What’s also true, according to several inside his inner circle, is family wasn’t the only reason Brady stepped away. There was some frustration with how Bruce Arians ran the Buccaneers, the atmosphere looser than in New England, less buttoned-up and less accountable as a result. It’s true that when Brady added potential stress from how his team was run specifically into his annual retire-or-not equation, returning for another year of pedal-to-turf football routines was less appealing.
14. It’s also true that wanting to be more present at home—speaking for all parents here, not Brady—is not the same as actually being more present at home. My own recent paternity leaves speaks to this, minus the greatness.
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15. Arians’s shifting into the front office and the Bucs’ elevating Todd Bowles to head coach for his quarterback’s Michael Jordan season should be considered neither solely Brady strong-arming nor mere coincidence. The truth falls somewhere in the middle, hence the public obfuscation of events undertaken by all parties.
16. Nor does Brady’s return signal some sort of family issue. There will be plenty of time for that, for them.
17. This is Brady’s equation now, what he must consider after every season, what he started considering roughly five years back. Not: How long do I want to play? More: Do I want to commit to playing this next season, given whatever circumstances there might be and the toll it will take on me? That’s his health. That’s his body. That’s his family and his future. But that’s also situation specific, owing to his team, its roster, the health of his teammates, the coach and the totality.
18. The central question now is: If Brady does everything he can, and his team does everything it can, are they positioned, like last season and the one before that, when Brady won his seventh Super Bowl, to make a legitimate run? If the answer is yes, it’s more likely he will return. If the answer is no, there’s a greater chance he’ll retire.
19. The tricky part is what happens if he comes back, whether this season or the next one or the one after that, wins an eighth title and still gets all “yes” answers in that equation. (More on that in a bit.)
20. This is greedy. This is fair. This is Brady’s rare duality, the part that doubles as a contradiction. For years, the quarterback has said that he cares, more than anything, about his process, about what it takes to win and summoning the energy to embark on another round of obsession that’s, if not unhealthy, then right on the border. I believe him when he says that winning isn’t as important as process, growth over outcome and all that. But an important distinction should be made there. Brady does care deeply about winning. He does care deeply about his legacy. But shaping any one season or a career unlike any in the history of professional football starts with process, which leads to winning and leads to legacy. None of those concepts exist without the others, nor how they tie together to form a singular pursuit.
21. Process matters because winning matters. Process isn’t in and of itself the end goal or the only one.
22. Confidants are sounding the same themes this summer they have sounded in recent summers. Brady looks as good as ever, based on eye tests and advanced metrics and another offseason of toiling toward perfection he will never obtain, the ideal intentionally elusive, an annual exercise in moving his own goalposts.
23. The Madden video game franchise still rates him the highest (97) among NFL quarterbacks, ahead of Rodgers (96), Patrick Mahomes (95), Josh Allen (92) and Joe Burrow (90).
24. Brady has also been the game’s cover model twice—and both times in his 40s. On the Madden NFL 18 version solo and the Madden NFL 22 game with Mahomes.
25. It’s easy to look at the Bucs in relation to the 2022 season and see why Brady did come back. They, not the defending champion Rams, are the betting favorites to win the NFC.
26. Why not? Start there, if the skills remain as undiminished as everyone is bending over backward to point out. Tampa Bay re-signed a pair of running backs (Leonard Fournette, Giovani Bernard) with complementary skill sets, along with a stud corner (Carlton Davis) and a receiver (Breshad Perriman); added safety Logan Ryan and two more solid targets that Brady will likely elevate (Russell Gage and Kyle Rudolph); and spent half of its eight draft selections on offensive depth.
27. Losing center Ryan Jensen hurts. Losing tight end Rob Gronkowski might hurt more. Gronk has caught 90 of Brady’s 624 career touchdown passes, easily the most of any player.
28. Randy Moss is second on that list, with 39 Brady TDs, followed by Julian Edelman (36), Wes Welker (34) and Mike Evans (26). Evans is already fifth after just two seasons, and his pace of 13 TD balls from Brady per season could bump him past some Patriots legends.
29. Adding Julio Jones, at whatever age (33), should offset the other departures. Seven Pro Bowls is seven Pro Bowls.
30. Imagine when Chris Godwin is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 15 last season against the Saints. Brady will line up with Mike Evans, Godwin and Jones at his disposal, along with Gage in the slot, Perriman streaking downfield and Rudolph setting up in end zones across the league.
31. Not to mention Cameron Brate, Tyler Johnson, a versatile running back core and two rookie tight ends. Plus, if it’s not clear, the perfect quarterback to spread the ball around.
32. Who from the NFC scares you more than Tampa? The Rams? The Bucs nearly toppled them last January, despite a rash of injuries. The Packers? Just lost Davante Adams. The Cowboys? Niners? Cardinals? Eagles? Saints? Nope, nope, nope, nope and … nope. None are scarier than the Bucs.
33. Strength of schedule could matter. The Bucs’ schedule is as brutal as waking up at 45. They start the season with road trips to Dallas and New Orleans, then host the Packers and Chiefs.
34. Strength of Brady will matter more. Brady is still Brady, GOAT of all GOATs unless those who know him best are wrong and those who don’t know much at all are right. Eventually, that’s exactly what will happen. Brady will get old. His arm strength will decline. His arm will lose enough zip so as to render his accuracy untenable. He won’t be able to make up for aging with experience.
35. But when this happens, it won’t be because the armchair analysts saw something Brady’s coaches, world-renowned experts, happened to have missed.
36. Brady himself has seen this movie. He can still recall sitting in the Pacific Athletic Club nearby his childhood home in Northern California, when his favorite team, the 49ers, traded his idol, Joe Montana. That wouldn’t be him, he promised, before anyone believed he’d actually make the NFL, let alone win a Super Bowl. He was right, by the way. He wasn’t Montana, wild as that sounds. He was better, wild as that sounds.
37. Brady’s inevitable decline will be because of things such as aging and physics. Make that prediction enough years in a row and, eventually, you will be right.
38. But the Dolphins aren’t making that bet. According to an NFL investigation released Tuesday, Miami went full tamper mode for TB12. A piece of ownership was even on the table. But let’s be real: The Fins wanted a quarterback above all.
39. Brady didn’t go to the Bahamas this spring just to hit the beach. He brought wideouts and conducted workouts, having answered the only question that matters for him at this point. Motivated? Yes. Enough to be him? Without a doubt.
40. Brady confidants understand why he publicly says he cares little about his legacy. They don’t want to speak for him. But they don’t exactly buy that notion, either. For instance, Brady is well aware of Ryan’s strikeout record, which is nearly 1,000 K’s higher than the second-highest career tally (Randy Johnson). Ryan’s experience is Brady’s future, unbreakable marks and all, everything until The Day, whenever and wherever it comes. Ryan said he just knew. It was time. He sought out his general manager and said, “I don’t think I can do it anymore.” He didn’t mean pitch. He meant meet his standard as a pitcher. That was always the hardest part. Being him.
41. What happens next? House once told me he considered athletes who came back, year after year, regardless of injuries or gray hair or emerging talents to fight off, as “small islands of special” in the greater sea that is professional sports. Brady, House argues, is a “better thrower” now than he was 10 years ago. But those islands come with a high cost: the rest of a life, put on hold, for longer than their peers.
42. The numbers will continue to stagger. Should Brady reach another Super Bowl, he could, per the same CBS Sports article, set a new record for playoff wins by a starting quarterback against NFC teams. This is truly remarkable, even more mind-boggling than normal, because Brady played for two decades in the other conference, beat six NFC teams in Super Bowls, then moved to the NFC and continued to collect playoff wins (currently four and counting).
43. In comparison, Brett Favre has 12 such victories, while Montana, Rodgers and Brady have 10 apiece. Such numbers—35 playoff wins, more than double Montana’s total—could be chewed over forever, made into Mad Libs books for statheads, specific to Brady alone. (Free title suggestion: Brady By the Numbers.) What Brady really wants, though, is the perfect ending. Think John Elway or Peyton Manning, a Super Bowl triumph into retirement.
44. A Bradyophile might ask: Didn’t he already have that, after departing New England for Tampa and winning another Super Bowl, inside the Bucs’ home stadium no less, without Bill Belichick, two seasons ago? He did. But he also saw a more perfect ending, an eighth title, plus further separation from Rodgers, Mahomes and contemporaries such as Manning and Drew Brees and anyone who might come afterward. Maybe Bill Russell (RIP) is the only fair comp.
45. An eighth ring, by the way, would tie him with Bill Belichick, who earned two pre-Brady as defensive coordinator of the Giants. Ho hum, his eight would also be double Montana and Terry Bradshaw.
Does any of this mean Brady will retire after this season, while still 45? Of course not. The calculus may have changed, but the process—a year-by-year examination, influenced by any number of factors—has not. That mindset made Brady into Brady, a brand and a symbol, both centered not on defying Father Time but doing away with him entirely. It’s why Brady might play until 50. Why winning another title still might not be enough. Why it might be. And why he might step away, regardless of the outcome of this season, to consider multimillion-dollar overtures from networks (including his deal with Fox, already signed), a host of other businesses and enough money to never think about anything else beyond enjoyment ever again.
That’s the oddest part to me about how we in the dreaded “media” tend to view Brady, his career and his legacy. We tend to examine him in a historical sense, making comparisons to other elite players, or other special islands of longevity. But Brady never saw himself that way, which is why, for him and those closest to him, those notions never exactly tracked. We’re making the wrong comparisons. There aren’t any. There are none left.
Brady is back. Of course he is. He’s celebrating another birthday. Duh. And while mere mortals like an out-of-shape sportswriter who has spent a small amount of time in Brady’s orbit would bet that this is indeed his final season, anyone who’s betting is looking at this whole deal the wrong way. We won’t see anyone like Brady, not exactly, not ever again. When is the wrong question. It’s better, easier and more accurate to just enjoy whatever’s left.
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